Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Running on 3 cylinders

My first car was a 1989 Toyota Tercel, which I bought the summer after I graduated from high school. I called the car "Terry." It was my loyal partner in adventure — trips to the Southern Utah desert, snowboarding at Brighton, New Year's Eve 1998 in Portland. For my 21st birthday, my friends and I drove to Wendover, Nevada — a hedonistic outpost on the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats. The following day, while driving east on a long, flat straightaway of Interstate 80, I decided to test Terry's limits. Hot August sunlight shimmered across the white desert as I floored the gas pedal — 100 mph, 110 mph. All four of us in the car were screaming as I buried the needle beyond 115 mph for several seconds, until fear got the better of me.

I'll never know if that Salt Flats speed record was the catalyst, but after that, my underpowered, 12-year-old car with 190,000 miles went downhill fast. First the car started sputtering up hills, and then the gas mileage plummeted. Terry would vibrate horribly while idling, and then wouldn't start on its own. I had to park the car on hills and pop the clutch. While driving, I had to give the car gas at all times; otherwise the engine would die and wouldn't start again. It was quite a contortionist act to keep all three pedals pressed at stop lights. I quickly got used to Terry's quirks, but my sister borrowed the car once and is still traumatized by the experience. Finally I took Terry to see a mechanic, who told me one of the engine's cylinders had burned out. For a car that didn't have a lot of oomph to begin with, it was only going to continue to lose power. I'd eventually end up stranded, the mechanic said, unless I invested in a complete engine overhaul.

Sometimes I think about that Tercel when I am sputtering up a hill. I wonder whether, in the spirit of this seriously contorted analogy, I too have a burned-out cylinder. Maybe I buried my own needle one too many times. It was the death of Terry; I sold it to the Pick n' Pull for $150. Cars can be replaced. Humans have to work with their imperfect engines. Don't get me wrong; I'm grateful I'm still moving. But I need to reconcile the sputtering somehow, in case an engine overhaul never happens.

Since returning from Idaho, I've been mulling what to do about Alaska this year. The Iditarod is a hard thing to quit. I considered leaving my bike at home and starting with a sled and the intention to walk the 350. Perhaps I should delay attempting the Southern Route to Nome until I'm stronger and more ready, should that year ever arrive. If I was on foot, it would be easier to manage my pace and breathing. A 45-pound sled is often less strenuous to manage than an 80-pound bike. Hiking over the Alaska Range offers plenty of adventure without fretting about becoming dizzy and keeling over when I'm truly in the middle of nowhere, like the Shageluk Hills or the wind-blasted Yukon River. True, I've done no sled training and haven't run enough miles this winter to guess whether my body could handle that distance right now. By this point I had hoped to have at least one test sled run, but I haven't even found all of the pieces of my sled to put it together.

Over the weekend, we joined our friends Jorge and Wendy on a climb up to 12,000 feet on Niwot Ridge. Although I was the only one not dragging a sled, I still sputtered up the mountain in my snowshoes, and grumbled at Beat when he teased me for not keeping up. The sky was a dynamic mix of sun and cloud, and the snow was deep in the trees and scoured on the ridge. The weather was warm and almost eerily calm. It was a beautiful day that I probably would have enjoyed more if I wasn't trying to imagine it as "training." I mused about becoming a hobby hiker and never worrying how long these types of outings even take (for the record, 12 miles in just under seven hours.)

It's a strange experience, being so out of shape from a power standpoint, while subsequently feeling like I've never been stronger in terms of endurance. I wasn't sore after 19 hours on the Fat Pursuit course, wasn't tired after a night of sleep, and felt like I was just warming up when the seven-hour snowshoe hike ended. Sitting at home, I'm full of energy and feel like I could burst out the door at a full sprint. Of course the minute I set out, I start sputtering, and the negative feedback loop renews. But if I can avoid the sputtering, I genuinely believe I could just keep moving and not become weary.

So I'm torn about what to do about Alaska, as you can see, and wondering whatever happened to Terry the Tercel. That's the beautiful thing about the Pick n' Pull — parts can live on long after the car is gone. 

11 comments:

  1. I guess I'm a hobby hiker. I like it, but I've never been an endurance athlete. This probably means nothing, but you are probably more fit than the vast majority of humans. Also, my first car was a 1982 Chevette and I too drove it at 100 mph in Nevada.

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    1. Ah, cars. I develop similar attachments to my vehicles as I do to my bicycles. After I donated the 1996 Geo Prism that I owned for 11 years, I saw it (a red Prism with the exact same unique dents and splotches) with California plates on I-280. It warmed my heart to think that Geo was still out there having adventures.

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  2. I'm a hobby biker -- and I do like it, even after having been a competitive athlete for many years. Health problems forced me to become a hobby athlete, and from my perspective today, it was a good transition for me.

    I have to say that your posts describe your condition very similarly how they did one year ago. You might go back and read those posts. Despite your health woes at this time last year, you had a great ITI.

    I know that you have a big decision in front of you. My only small point would be that riding to McGrath (as opposed to walking) keeps the Nome option open just in case you feel as good as you did last year in the first 350 miles of the ITI.

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    1. This is exactly what Beat has been telling me. Sigh. I suppose the lead up will end up being a lot like last year. I'll agonize over it until it comes time to send out packages, send them out just in case, rinse, lather, repeat.

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  3. I have no words of wisdom (except maybe to say that hobby hiking is pretty damn awesome), but I just want to thank you for the fact that you're still blogging and sharing so much of your journey even though you're going through a hard time. You have no idea how helpful it is.

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    1. I didn't mean to disparage hobby hiking. It's basically what I've always done, since I was a teenager, and now at heart.

      My dad is pure hobby hiker, and undeniably in better shape than me.

      Thanks for your comment.

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  4. Ditto what KB Bear said. I think you should come to Alaska for a training week and see how you do not at altitude. Maybe the altitude makes you feel like you have less power. Plus, selfishly, I want company for my weekend trip to Cache Mtn!!

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  5. So perhaps you can't stop the sputter, but it might be possible to work on the negative feedback loop. From experience I can recommend two methods of dealing with that aspect of illness/recovery as an athlete or otherwise: MBSR and EMDR

    I can provide some resources, but won't put links here so it isn't spammy.

    Sending understanding and hope from a random corner of the internet!

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  6. "It's a strange experience, being so out of shape from a power standpoint, while subsequently feeling like I've never been stronger in terms of endurance." It sounds more and more like you should be a through hiker, as I believe someone suggested in a comment on an earlier post.

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  7. Anonymous11:55 AM

    I just discovered your books and blog a few days ago and I want to thank you for all the fantastic mind journeys. Especially now, when I really need some escapist reading. I recently finished a cycle tour across the US and Canada. After reading about your adventures, I'm thinking about converting to a bikepacking set-up and trying some mountain bike tours. I wrote a blog post about how much I loved reading your writing. Thanks for the inspiration! https://spinstera.wordpress.com/

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  8. I got my parents' vintage Buick up to 130 on the Old Seward Highway on the back side of Potter Marsh when I was in high school. We do not have Interstates available for speed racing here in AK so I feel that it was a real accomplishment.

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